35: Spring 2015

Author: Alan Edmondson

Primulas and Auriculas – a Talk by Alan Edmondson

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Alan Edmondson spoke to us on the genus Primula which is a huge family of plants comprising over 425 species and many thousands of hybrids. They are mainly perennial, alpine herbaceous plants with short rhizomes and leaves in basal rosettes, found mostly in northern temperate zones with over half the species originating in the Himalaya. Primulas are found in a range of habitats from damp, grassy banks and riversides to the wet, stony screes of high mountains.

The auriculas first appeared in European gardens around the middle of the sixteenth century and some believe they came to England with Huguenot weavers when they were forced to flee France. John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to Charles I, cultivated them in Lambeth, around 1633. Popular interest in breeding and showing auriculas came in the later eighteenth century when artisans of Lancashire, Cheshire and Sheffield were credited with the keenest competitions. Enthusiasm for these flowers was at its peak in the early 19th century when Florists’ feasts and shows were held and the supreme champion was awarded a copper kettle. (‘Florist’ used in this context referring to a gardener who grows and raises plants to an agreed, exacting standard).

We take up the story with Florence Bellis an extraordinary horticulturist who, in the 1930’s, developed the highly colourful and vigorous Barnhaven primroses named after her home in Oregon, USA, together with Cowichans. She simplified and advanced known methods of hybridising and revolutionised accepted practice. Her hand-pollination techniques, previously untried, produced the Barnhaven strains and originations which continue to be developed by a few specialist growers notably members of the Primula societies in England and the USA, and continuing with Barnhaven Primroses now based in France.

Illustrations of British native primulas, familiar as a wildflower seen on verges and banks, Primula vulgaris, together with Primula veris (cowslip), P. elatior (true oxlip), P. vulgaris x veris (False Oxlip), Primula scotica, the Scottish primula, and Primula farinosa (the bird’s eye primula) reminded us of how welcome these charming Spring plants are. Primula groups – Alpine Border, Cowichans, Doubles and Show, the latter including green and grey edged, selfs, stripes and fancies – were each shown and it became clear that genus Primula had its own vocabulary supported, happily for the audience, by colourful images highlighting the varying characteristics, extensive, rich colour range and special attributes of each specific group.

Modern-day auriculas can be traced back to Primula auricula, which is a small yellow-flowering alpine plant of the Alps and Primula hirsuta, displaying mauve to pink flowers. The natural cross produced Primula x pubescens which it is widely believed is the descendant of this cross and which has now been in circulation for a period of more than 400 years. Situations in which auriculas can be grown include bog gardens, rockeries, cold greenhouses and cold frames. (Recommendations for the bog garden also included Primula bulleyana, P. burmanica and P. japonica.)

Alpine and border auriculas have proved to be the easiest to grow and, importantly, the most robust. They have a wide range of coloured flowers and are sub-divided into light or dark centred indicating that the flowers have either white or gold centres respectively. The alpines are free from farina (the white powdery coating of leaves, stems and flowers on some auriculas, also called ‘the paste’ at the centre of show auriculas) in all parts of the plant making them easy to distinguish from the Borders which often have farina in parts. These plants prefer to be planted out of direct sunlight in a moist, well-drained soil containing organic matter, preferably facing north or west.

Of the Doubles, the glorious purple-flowered Primula ‘Eugénie’, the bright yellow ‘Sunshine Susie’ and the frosted deep blue ‘Miss Indigo’ were singled out as particularly good, fragrant specimens developed by hand-pollinating double and single primroses. Of the European hybrids Primula marginata ‘Linda Pope’ was recommended, as was P. pubescens x ‘Rufus’.

Other primula groups illustrated included gold-laced polyanthus with golden-eyed flowers with black or mahogany petals with gold margins, Primula Jack in the Green Group with rich ruby-red flowers backed with a green ruff, Primula veris ‘Hose-in-Hose’ which, unlike the normal cowslip, presents each blossom with a second blossom growing from within the normal one providing a delightful doubling effect; Primula sieboldii, very hardy in the garden preferring, as other groups, to be out of direct sunshine in a cool, free draining soil rich in leaf mould; and candelabra primulas, their name taken from the flowers not arranged in the usual umbel but in whorls set at intervals up an otherwise bare stem producing the general effect of a candelabrum and which is popularly grown.

By the end of his talk, it was clear that primulas were a life-long passion, if not obsession, of our knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker. It was also easy to see how one could become ‘hooked’ on growing and cultivating this fascinating genus of plants.

First published in the Southern Counties Group Newsletter May 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Rachel Raywood

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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